"What?" Tyler ejaculated. "Leave me cooped up when there's a fight on. I'm coming."
"So am I," Joan was pale but determined.
"Oh, Lord," Hilary groaned. "Listen to me, please," he said patiently. "Time is precious, and I can't argue. Joan, you would only be a hindrance. I for one would be thinking more of protecting you than fighting. As for you, Wat," he turned to the furious bantam, "I'm sorry, but you'll have to take orders. The Vagabond must be guarded. If we're cut off, we're through. And there's Joan."
"Well. If you want to put it that way," Wat grumbled.
"I knew you'd be sensible," Hilary said hurriedly, not giving them a chance to change their minds. "At the slightest alarm, take off. Don't try to rescue us if we don't return. The Earth cause is more important than any individual. If you get caught, too, the revolt will be leaderless; at an end."
The men shook hands gravely. Joan, white-faced, kissed Hilary passionately. "Be careful, my dear."
Then the two men were gone, moving cautiously down the corridor with deadened footfalls. Hilary had retrieved his automatic; Grim had his more modern dynol pistol. The guard had been thrust into a corner, bound, unnoticed.
The laboratory was on the floor below. They trod carefully down the inclined ramp connecting all the floors. The corridors, the ramp, were deserted.
"All out fighting," Hilary whispered. "The revolt must be spreading."
Grim swore. "The idiots. I told them not to start anything until I returned. They'll be wiped out--they weren't ready."
Hilary nodded slowly. He thought of the strange heat while he had been captive. There would be very few Earthmen left alive in Great New York now.
They were at the foot of the ramp now. Just ahead gleamed an open slide. A pale-blue light streamed out at them; in the oblong of the interior they could see moving shapes, weirdly cut off, crossing their field of vision; bright gleaming machines, segments of tremendous tubes flooded with the pale-blue light. And over all was a constant hum, a crackling, a whining of spinning parts. The laboratory!
The Weather Machine The two men flattened themselves against the wall so that they could not be seen by a casual glance from the Mercutians inside the laboratory.
"There are a lot of them," Grim whispered.
"Can't help it," Hilary answered grimly. "Have to take our chances."
"Of course," Grim said simply. There was no backing out.
Silently, with catlike tread, they inched their way forward flat against the wall, keeping out of the blue flood of illumination. The shapes, or rather segments of shapes within, moved about, engrossed in the business at hand, unaware of the creeping death.
The Earthmen had reached their stations unobserved, one on either side of the open slide. Very carefully Hilary protruded his head around the vita-crystal, and ducked back almost instantly. But his quick eye had taken in all the essential details in that momentary vision.
There were about a dozen Mercutians in the long laboratory, and each had a sun-tube dangling from his belt, ready at hand. The laboratory was crowded with apparatus, but what had drawn Hilary's attention was a gigantic gleaming metallic sphere set up prominently in the center of the room. Protruding from it at all angles were great quartz tubes, through which a blue light pulsed and flamed. It was connected by huge cables to a spark-bathed dynamo. Other cables writhed through the translucent ceiling. The weather machine!
Hilary took a firmer grip on his automatic, nodded once to Grim. The two Earthmen stepped simultaneously through the open door.
"Raise your paws high and keep them up." Hilary's voice cracked like a whip through the busy confusion of the laboratory. The Mercutians, scattered as they were, whirled around from their tasks to face two deadly weapons held by two determined-looking men.
There was a chorus of strange guttural oaths, but every hand moved skyward, reluctantly.
Hilary picked out the most blasphemous sounding of the cursers, rightly deeming him the Cor in charge.
"You," he said, "what switches regulate the weather machine?"
The Mercutian Cor was a particularly ugly specimen. The gray warts were gigantic, hiding whatever semblance of manlike features there might have been beneath.
"I'll see you dogs burned to a cinder in the sun first," he growled.
"Keep them covered, Grim," Hilary said sharply. "I'll take care of this fellow personally."
He walked straight across the room for the Cor, eyes blazing, index finger on trigger. The Cor, fear staring out of his lidless eyes, backed slowly away from the approaching death. There was a hushed silence.
"I'll tell, I'll tell!" the Cor screamed, as the relentless weapon almost touched his paunchy stomach.
"I thought you would," Hilary said grimly, not for an instant relaxing the pressure against the trigger. "If you value your worthless hide, you'd better talk, and talk fast. What switch reverses the machine, to bring on rain? If you are wise, you won't try to fool me."
The wretch almost stumbled in his eagerness. "By the gray soil of Mercury I'll tell you the truth." His arm flung up, pointing. "That knob over there controls the--"
Hilary never heard the rest. There was a crash at the other end of the laboratory. One of the Mercutians, tired of keeping his arms high extended, had attempted to rest his huge bulk against a laboratory table. It went over with a splintering crash of glassware.
Hilary whirled around to face the noise. As he did so, the Cor seized his opportunity. His right arm dropped to his side, jerked up his sun-tube. Hilary heard Grim's warning cry, tried to pivot back again. But Grim beat him to it. The dynol pistol exploded sharply; the flaming pellet caught the Cor square in his side. There was a dull explosion and the Cor was torn violently into bits. He dropped, a mass of shapeless blobs.
But now hell had broken loose. The Mercutians were not cowards. At the moment of the diversion, every one of them had gone for his sun-tube. A flame streaked close to Hilary's head, shivered the opposite wall into molten fragments. He ducked behind a table and fired. A Mercutian threw up his hands, staggered and pitched forward heavily. Grim's dynol bullets whined in their passage, spattered the laboratory with flying blobs of flesh. They did terrible execution. Hilary's automatic spat its leaden hail.
But the Mercutians were entrenched now behind tables, machinery, whatever cover they could find. The beams from half a dozen sun-tubes slithered across the room, burning flaming paths through the overheated air, bringing the very walls down about them. It could not last long. Already Hilary had a nasty burn across one shoulder; there was a streak of red across Grim's forehead as he hid behind the panel of the entrance, whipping his pistol around to fire, and ducking back again. There were too many of the enemy, and overwhelming reinforcements could be expected any moment. The Earthmen's position was desperate.
Through it all the great weather machine hummed and crackled; the tubes were sheets of surging flame. Hilary cursed softly. If only the Cor had completed his sentence before he died. Hilary would have chanced a sudden rush forward to reverse it, to bring on a deluge of rain and clouds, even though it meant certain death. The machine seemed to gleam at him mockingly; the hum continued with tantalizing smoothness.
"Look out," Grim's voice came to him sharply. He jerked his head back, just in time. A ray streaked past his ear like a thunderbolt. The heat from it scorched his face.
The Mercutians were stealthily crawling nearer, pushing heavy, tables in front of them as shields. He was almost outflanked now. In another minute he would be exposed.
Hilary thought rapidly. His position was untenable. He would have to run for it. A sudden dash to the door might possibly win through. But the machine! He set his teeth hard. If he could not change the weather, at least he could destroy the infernal thing, stop its grinding out perfect sunshine for the Mercutians.
He lifted his weapon. Off to one side a Mercutian arm advanced cautiously, bringing up a sun-tube. He swung on it and fired. The sun-tube clattered to the floor and the arm jerked back, accompanied by a howl of anguish. Hilary smiled grimly, took careful aim at the metal sphere of the machine. The bullet leaped true for its mark. A little round hole showed--but nothing happened. The infernal machine hummed softly as ever.
He cursed, fired again. Another round hole, and that was all. With increasing viciousness he turned his aim on the quartz tubes, pierced them through and through. Before his very eyes, the quartz seemed to run and melt around the holes, to seal them tight as if he had never shot. The blue flames leaped and surged mockingly. The Mercutians were jeering now; raucous calls went up.
Hilary felt a sinking despair. He had failed; would have to run for it now. Small chance to make it, too. Then he heard Grim's deep bass. "Hold it a moment," he said as if he had read his thoughts.
Fascinated, Hilary saw the giant's pistol slowly thrust its long barrel around the edge of the crystal slide. A half dozen rays leaped viciously, for it. But a flaming pellet streaked out of its orifice before it was jerked back.
Hilary could see its red path as it struck the sphere of the machine. The next instant there was a dull explosion and the whole machine disintegrated into a smother of flying fragments. The expanding dynol had done the trick where lead had failed. There would be no more weather control.
But Hilary did not pause to see the finish. Even as the machine burst, he was running across the room, bending low. Fragments whizzed by him at a fearful clip; rays crisscrossed all about him.
But somehow he was through. Grim's finger was on the slide button. It closed with a snap behind him, cutting off the pursuing howls of rage.
Silently the two men darted up the ramp to the pent-apartment, dashed into the master bedroom. The Mercutian guard whom they had left securely bound, was gone. The Earthmen looked at each other, a great fear in their eyes. In one bound Hilary was at the door slide, thrusting it open. He tore out upon the open terrace, Grim right behind him.
They looked wildly about. The terrace was empty. There was no sign of the Vagabond, or of Joan and Wat. High overhead hovered a great burnished diskoid. Long streamlined Mercutian fliers darted through the air, but nowhere was there a sign of the familiar sphere.
Hilary gripped his companion's arm. "They've been captured, Grim," he choked.
"Nonsense," the giant said gruffly, to hide his own misgivings. "They just took alarm at something and winged off."
"But where is the guard then?"
Grim shook his head. He could not answer that. Despair overwhelmed Hilary. After all he had gone through, to have Joan snatched away from him at the moment of success. It was terrible. Wat too, that freckled-faced bantam.
"I should never have left them alone," he accused himself remorsefully.
"Here," said Grim sharply, "none of that. You did exactly the proper thing. We'll find them yet."
It was a confidence that he did not feel. There was the noise of padding feet up the ramp. The Mercutians were coming, in force.
Grim gripped Hilary by the shoulder, shook him vigorously. "They're coming. We're trapped."
Grendon snapped out of the lethargy into which he had sunk, face drawn and gray.
"No. There is a way. Follow me."
The first of the Mercutians pounded heavily into the room when Hilary had thrust Grim into the secret lift. He whirled and fired. The Mercutian coughed and fell forward. Other gray warty faces, furious, thrust from behind their dying comrade. But Hilary was in the lift, pressing the button for full speed down. A darting ray showered them with rounded smoking bits of vita-crystal, but they were dropping headlong through the building.
Ten minutes later they emerged cautiously from the entrance to the Pullman Building. It was deserted, deathly still. The two Earthmen stopped short, horror-struck at what they saw.
The streets were shambles. Hundreds of bodies lay sprawled in tumbling twisted heaps. Earthmen all, with here and there the grotesque huge bulk of a Mercutian who had failed to hear the warning signal. The bodies were scorched, blackened. Raw agony appeared on contorted desperate faces. It was not good to look upon.
"Wh--what has happened?" Grim gasped, his breath coming heavily.
"Just a little pleasantry of the Mercutians," Hilary said bitterly. He looked upward. High overhead hovered a gigantic shape, motionless.
Its great disk, burnished and dazzling in the cloudless sky, seemed to cast a sinister shadow over the city it had destroyed a second time.
"There's the toy that did it," said Hilary. "I felt the heat while I was a captive up in the Robbins Building. You must have flown over after, and missed it."
Grim shook a great brawny fist aloft. His deceptively mild eyes were hard flames now. His face was set in great strong ridges. Hilary had never seen him this way before.
"I'll rip every Mercutian to pieces with my bare hands--shred him into little bits." He meant it too. Hilary shuddered.
Far off down the wide thoroughfare came the glint of weapons, the sight of massed ranks. A Mercutian patrol was shambling along, heavy-gaited.
"Come on, Grim, let's get out of here," said Hilary.
They flattened like shadows against the wall, slunk stealthily through radiating streets. As much as possible they kept their eyes away from the sickening sights, the poor burned bodies of their fellow men. Steadily they headed for the branch local conveyors as being less likely to be under surveillance.
The Ramapos was their destination. Hilary went dully, listlessly. Joan was gone again; this time he could not possibly know where. Every step he took though, seemed to lead him farther away from her. His glazed eye searched the shining skies as he stumbled along. Not a sign anywhere of the Vagabond. Only the hateful swift-moving Mercutian fliers.
It was only Grim's insistence that kept him going. The secret gorge was the headquarters of the revolt, he argued. If the fools he had left in charge hadn't thrown their men recklessly on New York against his instructions to join that last foolhardy heroic attack, there was still a chance of salvaging the revolution.
Back to the Ramapos It was dark when they reached the first swellings of the Ramapo Range. It was dangerous to try and make their way through tangled brush and mountain trails. All night they camped on the bare ground, sleeping fitfully, cramped cold, shivering. They dared not light a fire; it would draw instant unwelcome attention.
When dawn came, they were on the move, glad to stretch their sodden limbs. Unerringly Grim homed for the invisible cleft. Nothing stirred in the forests, even the birds seemed gone. The fog had lifted, the sun blazed forth in unclouded majesty. The damp on them dried quickly.
But Grim shook his fist at the unwitting orb.
"Damn that weather machine," he growled. "Breaking it seems to have made matters worse. Even the regular midnight shower has stopped. I'd give ten years of my life for the sight of a cloud."
"It will never rain again," Hilary said wearily. "It has forgotten how."
The bright sunny sky seemed a brazen hell to the footsore Earthmen. It mocked and jeered at them with sparkling waves of warmth.
Before them was an unbroken mass of underbrush. The next instant they were on the brink of the chasm.
"They haven't found us yet," said Morgan, surveying the looped end of the rope ladder. They climbed swiftly down the swaying rungs. The rock slanted with them, turned sharply and fell sheer. Below there was a confused murmur, the sound of movement.
A voice came floating up to them, sharp, commanding.
"Stop where you are, you two. You're covered."
"It's Morgan," Grim bellowed, not pausing an instant in his descent.
The next instant he dropped lightly to the floor of the gorge. A moment later Hilary stepped beside him.
Men were crowding about Grim, clean-cut, determined-looking Earthmen. Nothing like the men he had encountered on his first trip on the express conveyor. The bottom of the gorge had all the appearance of a wartime camp.